Inside the world’s safest house

Sean Conners/Staff

Related Posts

Tucked in an unassuming neighborhood in a district two miles southwest of the UC Berkeley campus, the “world’s safest” house stands boldly. And so does Eugene Tssui, a Cal alumnus and the house’s architect. In the past 20 years, the pair has challenged conventional wisdom and defied architecture’s status quo. Buying a small plot near a university built atop the Hayward Fault, in a state renowned for its earthquakes, Tssui seized the challenge to build a secure house for his elderly parents. His plan? Emulate the hardiness of a microscopic water bug.

The neighborhood fortress

From the street, the water bug likeness is uncanny. Amid a blanket of dense and colorful foliage, the rough-hewn exterior soars upward. Walls are striped with wrinkles and pockmarked with dinosaurian ridges. According to Tssui, every form has a function. The ridges each contain a black plastic tube that lets hot air flow around the house. The wrinkles magnify the effect. In the case of a fire, the striated surface would carry the heat up, out and away.

“It’s completely fireproof,” Tssui explained.

But that’s not all. The massive sailfish-like fin towering over the entrance doubles as a rain cowl and a wind breaker. Water and gusts of wind are directed away from the windows and doors (preventing indoor flooding). Though California hurricanes are rare, the house is prepared for the worst.

Tssui paid careful attention to sourcing the best building materials. The house’s structure is made of Rastra, a special concrete infused with compressed, recycled coffee cups. Rastra’s benefits are numerous, including fire resistance, flooding resistance, mildew resistance, termite resistance and noise reduction. In fact, Rastra’s sound insulation reduces sound levels by 50 dB or, in Tssui’s terms, “the difference between a jet roar and normal speech.” As for earthquakes, the house’s cavernous interior is supported by Structo-lite, a super strong plaster. Under stress, Structo-lite bends, flexes and adjusts. When the world is shaking, the house comes alive and survives.

Close-up of the exterior walls. Note the ridges and wrinkles.

Close-up of the exterior walls. Note the wrinkled texture.

“It goes beyond the definition of safety itself,” Tssui said. “A safe building is (by conventional standards) a heavy, rigid and monolithic building. But in nature, the strongest things are lightweight, flexible and unified. (This house) is designed as nature would design for safety. I’m absolutely sure it’s the safest thing that could be built for this disaster-prone area.”

Onlookers agree. From “most indestructible” to “disaster-proof,” the house’s accolades have held up to its miniature namesake: the Tardigrade, a beetle-like, extremophile creature. In 2007, the tiny Tardigrade became the first animal to survive outer space. In both form and function, Tssui’s meticulous translation of the little survivor’s body features into practical building designs has succeeded beyond the architect’s expectation. Recently, he replaced his house’s former, more mysterious designation, “Ojo del Sol,” with a more direct “Tardigrade House.” In spite of his best efforts, the public has been slow to catch on. ­

“Its seems to the general populace that it looks like a giant fish,” Tssui says with a shrug.

Twenty years ago, cynics thought the house would attract prostitution and drug trafficking. Over time, locals have come to call it “the Fish House near San Pablo Park.”  Now, this too may change. Originally built as his parent’s private residence, Tssui has partnered with Airbnb to rent the house to Bay Area travelers as short-term lodging. Now empty, Tardigrade House’s interior design is a striking contrast to its ashen exterior. Inside is a secret, otherworldly place with its own artistic bravado.

Swollen with sunshine

Entering the house is its own story. A flagstone path meanders from the sidewalk to the front door. The path descends in a slope, leading one into the jaws of the house. Tssui explains that he is trying to draw people into nature. At the same time, he adds, he has made the entire residence wheelchair accessible. Form, he reminds, always has a function.

9089179859_3a4f736cd1_b

The massive fin above the entrance casts a deep shadow inside the house, an altogether discrete and disorienting darkness. Through the still meandering entryway, the shadows vanish to reveal an atrium swollen with sunshine. Light filtered through a massive glass ceiling acts as the primary light source for the house. For Tssui, sustainability was key. Along with lighting, Tssui’s interior structure has made insulation and ventilation maintenance worry-free. Indoor temperatures never fluctuate.

“Year-round, you could wear shorts and a t-shirt with no heating,” he explains. “There are no fans either. And no air conditioning. (The house) is a great prototype for a zero-energy building , although it does require energy for ovens. But for heating and ventilation? Zero.”  To prove his point, he takes a sniff. “See? Mustiness does not exist.”

For an architect with a long career, reception for energy-efficient housing is a social development that is relatively new.

“LEED and energy conservation … none of that was talked about 20 years ago,” he admits. “This (house) is a success given today’s ecological goals and a pioneering effort in that. I am really pleased how everything turned out.”

The living room lies beneath the skylight. Sitting cushions flank a suspended wooden table. Hanging from the ceiling, like strings from an enormous puppet show, steel cables provide support to the atrium.

9072582511_54d5623817_b

Each cable is anchored to a section of a massive spiral ramp. In the event of an earthquake, the cables absorb stress from the ramp and reinforce the entire house. Sound familiar? The mechanics were borrowed from the Bay Area’s most enduring icon: the Golden Gate Bridge.

The spiral ramp — also wheelchair accessible — provides access to the residence’s second-story living quarters. Along the path, the interior walls are riddled with orbs of stucco and inter-coiling, tendril-like carvings. Halfway up the ramp, a hemispherical window, like an enormous eyeball, bulges out. Like a silent guardian, Tardigrade House keeps watch over the Berkeley skyline.

The largest window in the Tardigrade House.

The largest window in the Tardigrade House (seen from the spiral ramp)

In fact, every window in the house is circular. Shape, an often-overlooked component in window design, can be the deciding factor leading to irreparable property damage.  According to Tssui, “One of the things commonly seen after an earthquake is cracks on the windows. This is because square windows cannot take strain and bunches stress at the corners. For (my) windows, forces are taken tangentially around the circles, so there is absolutely no cracking.”  Referring to the window’s submersible semblance, he, for good measure, adds, ” There is no reference to Jules Verne.”

On the second floor, bedrooms are decorated with maritime motifs. Shelves built into the walls have rounded, rippled edges. Carvings of spirals and parabolas crisscross. Squint. Some of the walls contain mica chips. Squint again. They glisten like starlight.

A new dimension of living

Architecture’s many episodes of history, from ancient Greek to art deco, bear little resemblance to the Tardigrade House. For Tssui, today’s challenges must be solved by 21st-century solutions.

“Architects and architecture are frozen in the past,” he said. “But past architecture has not even answered the problems of the past — like disaster situations. Our expectations of architecture (should be) to come up with new answers to very old problems.”

And they must also address quite a few new problems. While the house is prepared to confront short-term natural disasters, it doubles in being eco-friendly and energy-efficient. In a voice bordering on prophetic, Tssui adamantly describes the danger of global warming and environmental pollution.

“We are entering into what we call the ‘era of reckoning’,” he said. “All the mistakes we have created in the past we have to figure out and resolve. We have to take care of these mistakes. The last generation has turned Earth into a garbage dump, and we have to fix this. ”

Eugene Tssui stands bold. Behind him, the "Tardigrade House"

Eugene Tssui stands proudly in front of the “Tardigrade House.”

At 58 years old — or “58 years young,” as Tssui jokes — the architect is remarkably future-conscious. By applying the  principles of modern life science to an ancient profession, Tssui pioneers a new family of architecture. He even has a name for it: the “Biologic Movement.”

“When I first designed this house, I asked, “How would nature design the house with these requirements?’ If you think how nature thinks, you are guaranteed not to destroy the planet.”

The Tardigrade House is located at 2747 Matthews Street in Berkeley, Calif.  This article is part of a series on Eugene Tssui.

Image sources: Sean Conners, staff

Contact Alex Mabanta at [email protected]